Last post I laid out a few story arc that weave through the mostly episodic mass of Star Trek: The Next Generation, lending some continuity to the overall series. Whether we're talking about the Borg, Q, Klingons, or Data's quest to be more human, these stories provide a sense that the series is moving forward, that one episode's story can communicate with another.
This same purpose is also met by a few of the series' big themes: man's relationship to technology, utopian noninterventionism, and exploration. When you put together the stories that introduce "strange new life" and "new civilizations," you discover a largely consistent world view from the show: discovery for discovery's sake is good; irrationally closing one's minds to possibilities is bad. One other theme that really emerged during my rematch of the series: the consistent questioning about the nature of reality.
At times this question was overt. One of my favorite episodes, for example, "Ship in a Bottle," ends with one of the characters attempting to turn off reality, just to make sure he was still in the real world. But many, many episodes approach this question from less obvious angles.
I've put together a list of episodes (at the end of the essay) that I think serve this over-arching theme of reality versus illusion. These are not just all the episodes where the holodeck makes an appearance, or even ones where a character is deceived or delusional. These are all episodes where a character has a specific reason to doubt the existence of reality around them and voices that suspicion. Sometimes this happens through the holodeck, other times Q's trickery or telepathic manipulation or simple brain-washing. But what is clear to me is that this is a consistent, perhaps even dominant theme throughout the run of the show.
To what purpose?
Star Trek is already a science fiction show set in a future filled with androids, aliens, and omnipotent incorporeal beings. By questioning the basic reality of the events on the show, doesn't Star Trek run the risk of undermining it's audience's own suspension of disbelief? Rather than shying away from such questions, Star Trek seems to almost revel in pointing out the artifice in its many created, virtual, and alien worlds.
Perhaps it's not the illusion that is the important part of this theme, but just what is reality on Star Trek. In a universe where people can create their own virtual worlds on the holodeck, their next dinner is beamed in a matter replicator, and personnel usually think nothing of having themselves disintegrated and beamed down to another world, perhaps it becomes more essential to be able to put one's finger on precisely what is real. For the imagine future of Star Trek has already begun to creep up on us. Google is sending out invitations for the Google Glass this week. The idea of overlaying imagery and information over the vision of a human being enters into a world where reality can no longer be taken for granted as a natural, unaltered experience. We are more and more conscious of the fact that the environment around us is becoming altered by the products of human endeavor. The Arctic Sea is opening up for navigation within this decade. The climate patterns of the world have already begun to shift.
And of course that's leaving out consideration of all of the various uncertainty principles, observer biases, and distortions we're saddled with because of our imperfect senses. Again, maybe Star Trek's repeated questioning of reality isn't so much undermining as the only sane response to a world so profoundly compromised. If you can't be sure if one moment is more 'authentic' than the next, perhaps asking the computer to end the simulation is just sensible.
- Encounter at Farpoint (Q trickery, matter manipulations from cyclopean alien jellyfish)
- Where No One Has Gone Before (Apparently traveling to the edge of the universe results in reality bleed)
- The Battle (Ferengi mind torture causes Picard to hallucinate)
- Hide and Q (Riker receives power of the Q, gives everyone exactly what they desire)
- Haven (Telepathic dreams confuse young artist)
- The Long Goodbye (Holographic detective attempts to unravel mystery of own existence)
- 11001001 (Picard and Riker entranced by a holographic siren, wonder at nature of attraction)
- Coming of Age (Starfleet entrance exam punks Wesley)
- We'll Always Have Paris (Temporal distortion leads Data to question which of his doppelgängers is the 'real' one)
- Where Silence Has Lease (Vast alien intellect employs mind-games on Enterprise crew)
- Elementary, Dear Data (Data's holographic nemesis Doctor Moriarty questions existence)
- The Royale (Weird aliens create weird bubble universe based on bad novel)
- Q Who (Picard asks Q if the Borg are one of his tricks. They're not)
- The Survivors (An incredibly powerful alien tries to chase away the Enterprise with impressive illusions)
- Booby Trap (LaForge has a more meaningful relationship with a hologram than actual people)
- A Matter of Perspective (Star Trek Rashamon, 'nuff said)
- Yesterday's Enterprise (Guinan can't explain how she knows alternate time stream is 'wrong,' but she's damn sure it is)
- Hollow Pursuits (First Barkley episode, can't separate holodeck fantasies from obligations of reality)
- Remember Me (Crusher experiences a rapidly shrinking universe, Picard tells her everything is fine)
- Future Imperfect (Future is a lie. Romulan mind control is a lie. Riker believes both at first)
- Clues (Crew wakes up missing a few hours, eventually figures out what happened, decides that they didn't need to know the truth so badly, forgets the whole thing)
- The Mind's Eye (LaForge fed confusing version of reality through his visor)
- The Bonding (Boy loses parent to freak accident, powerful alien attempts to recreate mother for him, has to choose reality)
- Violations (Troi unable to decide where her real memories end and psychic manipulations begin)
- Imaginary Friend (not a great episode but the title pretty much says it all)
- The Next Phase (Ro is convinced she's dead and a ghost, LaForge isn't so sure)
- The Inner Light (Picard lives an entire life within the data stream of an alien probe, once freed has trouble deciding which life is more real)
- Realm of Fear (Barkley again, convinced that his paranoia over transporters has a basis in reality, he's right)
- Schisms (Spooky dreams and hallucinations intrude into the waking life of characters)
- Chain of Command, Part II (There. Are. FOUR! LIGHTS!)
- Ship in a Bottle (Moriarty blissfully escapes his virtual prison to begin a mission of exploration within a virtual universe. Wow. Just Wow.)
- Tapestry (Where am I? You're dead, Jean Luc. Picard questions the whole experience with Riker afterwards)
- Frame of Mind (Riker undergoes extreme mental torture, can no longer separate his actual life from the fantasies of a delusional alien)
- Rightful Heir (Worf cannot quite explain why the ancient Klingon prophet Kahless has returned, or ignore that he is standing in front of him)
- Liaisons (Forgettable episode, but the alien assigned to Picard attempts to convince him that he is trapped on a desolate world)
- Interface (LaForge convinced his mother is attempting to communicate with him through a virtual reality harness)
- Phantasms (Data has waking dreams and disturbing nightmares. Stabs Troi when he sees a mouth on her shoulder)
- Dark Page (Troi has to descend to the mindscape of her mother, attempting to figure out why Luxana has slipped into a coma)
- Parallels (Multiple timelines, everyone keeps telling Worf to lie down)
- Homeward (Holodeck used to trick aliens they're on a journey to a promised land. Malfunctions explained as signs from God)
- Eye of the Beholder (Troi seized by the psychic resonance of an old murder/suicide and hallucinates freely)
- All Good Things… (No one believes Picard about the temporal rift, Picard starts to doubt himself)